Running for time vs running for distance – which is better for runners?

run to time or distance
Running for time vs running for distanceHinterhaus Productions - Getty Images

Researchers have found that our minds process distance and time differently. When the finish line of a measured effort is in sight, you get visual feedback about how much further you have to go, which spurs you to accelerate near the end. Time feedback, however, is discontinuous: you have to keep glancing at your watch. As a result, studies find that you're more likely to maintain an even pace throughout a time-based interval, but run faster in a distance-based effort. Both approaches have advantages, depending on the purpose of your run.

Why you should run by time

1.To hone a sense of effort

When you aren’t concerned with your pace or how far you’ve run or have got left, it’s easier for you to gauge how your body is feeling at different speeds. You’ll get to know that something feels easy or hard, and with practice you will eventually know how long you can sustain that effort for. This helps you learn how to run on ‘feel’ – pay attention to your breathing rate and how your legs feel. Honing this skill is beneficial in other circumstances, for instance on runs with headwinds, hills or workouts that are hotter than you expected – these factors slow your pace, so effort is a better way of judging how hard you’re working. Tempo runs are another workout where getting the feel right (a ‘comfortably hard’ effort you feel you could sustain for around an hour) is crucial.

2. To relieve pressure

When returning from injury or a break from running, or when you're simply not feeling great, trying to cover the same distance that you covered, or trying to hit the same split time on a 400-metre rep on a good day or prior to your break, can sometimes do more harm than good, as it knocks your confidence. Instead of you easing yourself back into your running, you overdo it to try and get back to where you were quickly, or hit the same split times, instead of doing what it was that got you there in first place – building slowly. Running for time takes a little bit of this pressure away. A fartlek run can be a useful way to introduce faster running intervals without the pressure of a measured workout.

Why you should run by distance

1.To learn specific pace

Running at a specific pace for a particular distance helps to teach you how to pace – which is especially useful if you’re training for a race and aiming for a goal time, which requires you to cover a specific distance at a particular pace. It gives you a better understanding of how hard you are able to push over your chosen distance. It lets your body get used to how that pace feels, so come race day it’s not a shock to you. Doing repeats at a track allows you to see what 400 metres looks like, giving you continuous feedback.

2. To reach a mileage goal

Running by distance is important. If your goal is to run a race, whether a 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon, there will be mileage milestones along the way that you will want to hit. These milestones help you monitor your progress and build confidence, so that when it comes to race day you know you are ready. If your mileage goal isn’t just about one run, but about a number of runs over a week, month or year, distance is an easier metric to measure than time in the long term.

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